Issue 44 (2014)

Valerii Todorovskii: The Thaw (Ottepel', 2013)

reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko© 2014

In Search of a Lost Time

The month of December 2013 was spent with endless disputes about the serial: the “masters of culture” and their sympathizers were the television viewers, having forgotten all about their principles and intentions not to support the TV “idiot box”.

thawThe term “Thaw” emerged from the “philosophy of life,, from Nietzschean, Dionysian and Apollonian beginnings, which contain more uncertainty and vagueness than accuracy and concreteness. Of course, we know who introduced the concept of the Thaw into Russian culture, and when, but its connotations are not limited only to temporal frameworks: the Thaw is about expectation, about a short period of hope, about disappointment, about an ideal and the dream of socialism with a “human face,” the dream of freedom—this most vague object of desire. And it is about a new breath, about a time when the term “Cheyne Stokes respiration” no longer scared the population, but resumed its place in the professional lexicon. The breath of the Thaw is temporary and concrete; maybe therefore there is so much rain and water in the serial. It is not simply a citation from the Thaw cinema, but a mythological sign of destruction and purification. At the same time, the Thaw is nothing but an interim condition, which sooner or later would take a more definite position: icy cold or heat.

thawValerii Todorovskii’s serial The Thaw had been long-awaited; the intended theme had already for a long time become an access code for liberal spectators. These old expectations, which had turned into mythology, collided with the author’s new expectations. Todorovskii has always worked with modern material and has very delicately written his scripts from life: from Katia Ismailova (Podmoskovnye vechera, 1994), where he foresaw the time of the political secretaries writing novels, to The Lover (Liubovnik, 2002) and My Stepbrother Frankenstein (Moi svodnyi brat Frankenshtein, 2004) with their stories about the unrealized consequences of social complexes and traumas of the intelligentsia. In Hipsters (Stiliagi, 2008) he plunged into the history of the 1950s, creating a dense artistic text where reliability and fiction, gravity and carnival, the Eros of youth and the Thanatos of the system constantly supplement each other in an ambivalent communication. Todorovskii seemed to tease the audience, throwing into the plot episodes with the dark-skinned baby (greetings from Circus [Tsirk, 1936]), the municipal kitchen and raids. The hipsters were one of the first marginal groups for freedom with their concocted world of corporal protest behind which, of course, shone the future dissident mood that would show resistance to the Soviet establishment and the masses. After fifty or so years these masses, consisting of “those held together by the same chain” started to accuse Todorovskii (after the release of Hipsters) of darkening or blackening (ochernitel’stvo), of slander on the Soviet past, and of betrayal of his father (who was then still alive). The criticism of the film concerned above all the metaphorical language which was taken literally; there followed claims such as: “We did not wear black-and-brown, there were fine fabrics in the shops,” and so on. After The Thaw Todorovskii would be accused of exactly the opposite: of excessive beauty of dresses, cars, and hair-does; in other words: glamour. There are indeed attributes of glamour in the serial: the purple-violet lips with which each series begins; the yellow brilliant crystals; the eye from which a huge lighting device emerges again and again, operated masterfully by the protagonist Khrustalev. But Todorovskii’s glamour is no world view: he needs it for a distanced stylization of the time. This glamour easily transforms into in water-color sketches, and from there into harsh reality, as the episode of the inspector’s arrival at the office of the film production manager of The Girl and the Foreman demonstrates. Todorovskii has been accused that the film poorly reflects the socio-cultural context and the signs of the year 1961, such as political events or the figure of Gagarin. But the totalitarian past and present comes to life even at the level of corporeal memory: the gestures record victim’s condition of fear and lack of freedom and the executioner’s confidence. Sitting at someone else’s table as if it were his own, Inspector Tsanin (Mishchenko) questions the tall and handsome Georgian Giya Revazovich Taridze (Skhirtladze) standing before him; Taridze’s shoulders somehow soften, for behind his shoulders stands the past; Tsanin, inspector of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, at once reads this pose and asks: “Which paragraph?”, “How many years?”. The answers provide the material for more than one serial: “Paragraph 58, six years”.

thawHaving chosen the water-color of all graphic techniques, Todorovskii offers his own optics and frame: a system of references to the past through a number of objects which have remained in his memory. And here is the “trap” where our expectations disappear. The conceptual objects of those who lived in the 60s (Marlen Khutsiev and Mark Zakharov do not recognize the Thaw in the film, while the critic Elena Stishova does notice it) vary, especially since they differ from the objects of memory of those born in the 60s (Valerii Todorovskii). Thus, Todorovskii engages in the serial simultaneously both in the deconstruction and the construction of the past. He works with the construction of a past not as “monumental” or “antiquarian” (Nietzsche) history, but engages in a critical discourse: he loves, is surprised, hates. The latter condition is least typical for the filmmaker, who tries to remove the romantic flair from the past where idealism easily sat next to cynicism, and joined conformism and conservatism with youth support. For example, the episode when the winner of the Stalin Prize Fedor Krivitskii (Mikhail Efremov in an overcoat, taken from the costume store), supports the young Egor Miachin. Todorovskii offers a strategy of understanding circumstances and heroes: the heroes do not at all live along the lines of the Socialist Realist models of life, where the public towers over the personal. The two protagonists, Viktor Khrustalev (Tsyganov) and Egor Miachin (Iatsenko) undergo an inversion of private and public, of principles and indifference. So, the desperate truth-lover and non-conformist Miachin forgets that he should replace Khrustalev in the director’s reception at Mosfilm Studio because he has fallen in love at first sight. The cynic and conformist Khrustalev remembers that he should meet his wife, but he cannot leave the reception, because the duty before a friend ranks higher than the circumstances of private life. Khrustalev’s father (Smirnov)—part of the Soviet scientific nomenclature, a man of the state who worked on the country’s increased readiness for battle—used his position for personal purposes, humane and explicable in relation to relatives but inadmissible in the context of public morals, when there is “a national war, a sacred war.”

thawThere are many external attributes of the time—even though in art, and especially cinema; they are the material that generates the atmosphere of the era: the radiogram, the cezve, the queue for the Sovremennik Theater accompanied by conversations on “a new way of the actor’s stage existence,” and a snag that resembles the Earth’s space satellite. Marianna (Chipovskaia) is a student of chemistry, in a kind of gender replacement of the “physicists” to “chemists;” she is in charge of the nylon distribution and synthetics in the USSR. The frequently repeated words by the grandmother about polyamides sound like the instruction for a source of new happiness. Other signs of the time include a filmstrip which the younger son of Khrustalev watches; the song “Let’s never argue”; Voice of America with a report on Rudolf Nuriev; and the ineradicable rudeness of repressive institutions, both investigative and medical. Alongside these signs of everyday life, the film dwells on important metaphysical issues which provide energy to the plot: one of them is the presence of a secret. Almost each of the heroes has a secret. These are not only harmless secrets of childhood (the hiding place of Khrustalev’s daughter, Marianna Pichugina’s stolen case of drawing tools, the naked woman drawn by first-grader Khrustalev). There are secrets of another order which pursue the heroes, whose disclosure can lead to terrible consequences, since the time is not spring, but just a thaw: Stalin had died only eight years ago, and—as the former front-line soldier and director of the studio (Gostiukhin) remarks—it is “not for everybody.” There are undiscovered secrets: the suicide of the non-conformist scriptwriter Kostia Parshin, and secrets ensue articles of the Criminal Code of the USSR and public contempt. It is from these secrets that the image of the epoch emerges, when homosexuality brought with it real imprisonment, and the discovery of the history of Khrustalev’s “reservation” represents collective obstruction. These two episodes (the arrest of the costume designer Sancha (Volotskii) and the newspaper article organized by Inspector Tsanin in order to destroy Khrustalev) contain another essential sign of time: a monolithic impulse of condemnation. Those who should be able to doubt and ask questions differ in no way from the masses who are “held together by a single purpose.” Only at the end of the serial another secret is discovered: that of the Pichugin family, which we vaguely guessed in the beginning (why do Sancha and Marianna live with the grandmother?), which is also typical for the 1960s when stories about reprisals were known, but—just in case—people kept quiet.
thawTodorovskii’s lyrical intonation is supplemented by critical views, allowing him to trace the origins of the repressions not to the work of the security service, but to the people. Since he made an industrial film about art, the repressive force is acted out not only through the Artistic Council (“Who thought this was funny?”), but also by the spectators hiding behind the misunderstanding their own complexes and the eternal suspicion of not being respected. They show absolute disrespect for intellectual work. So, the wife of director Krivitskii, Nadia (Kolpakova), indignantly asks Khrustalev: “What sufferings can the heroine go through that I, a person with a medical education, does not know about?”. In the same rhetoric of misunderstanding falls the inspector when, in a state of intoxication, he shouts at the film crew: “What did you get such a high opinion of yourselves?! People feed you and give you to drink! Who are you?!” Similar aggression of misunderstanding can be observed at an exhibition of abstract art.

But precisely in the space of non-conformist art a certain unity of opposition against aggressive hypocrisy is formed, even if it is rendered in a comic mode: the entire company of Mosfilm (Inga, Miachin, Marianna and Sancha) rise against a grumbling couple of inhabitants, even if a minute later Inga and Miachin admit that have not got a clue what this is about. The intuitive desire to protect “ours” and “one’s own”, those who are persecuted, different, and who try out freedom extends only to shop interests: Miachin will soon believe the same, vile newspaper article about Khrustalev…

Todorovskii’s serial contains no obvious nostalgia for the Soviet times so popular in modern Russia. Even the notorious cleanliness as a sign of order and health is questioned in Khrustalev’s film. We do not see that film itself, but there are a few conversations about dust (the antithesis to sterile and correct) as a significant detail of his un-popular film. The verses, an emblem of “poetic cinema,” sound not as the free breath of strolling lovers, but as a sign of violence when Khrustalev is forced in the inspector’s office, as part of the investigation, to read Evgenii Evtushenko’s poem devoted to Bella Akhmadulina “That’s what is Happening to Me…”.

Todorovskii has no direct criticism for the Soviet period. Moreover, he shows and tells a story about Soviet professionals who, in their private lives, may be conformists, rascals, or cynics, but when it comes to work, they are virtuosos (lifting the approaching train from the undercarriage is a doodle, if only there were a box of cognac; setting up the lighting is no problem, but to find a red suitcase which becomes a leitmotif—impossible!). For the serial’s heroes the creative process is a desirable illness, a front line, a battle in which some—the most uncompromising—are thrown overboard, while the others try to sublimate their sense of guilt through the artistic message.

The 1960s are memorized deliberately as a time of an incredible explosion of creativity (art, science, technology, sports) and of the awakening of the concept of artistic autonomy. Purposefully, the protagonist’s surname is Khrustalev, and it does not matter that he got away from fighting in the war. He—a stinker and artist—protects the main discovery of the Thaw: the right to individuality; and he does so directly at the workplace (a professional!), punching the impudent inspector who, while drunk, humiliates the film crew. Whispering and shouting “Vitia, don’t!” Khrustalev brings down a representative of system. And that is perhaps the only moment when Todorovskii refuses to adopt the water-color perspective for a brief moment, expressing his views clearly and precisely, as the positions of author and hero coincide.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Lilya Nemchenko

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The Thaw, Russia, 2013
12 series, Channel One
Director: Valerii Todorovskii
Scriptwriters: Alena Zvantsova, Dmitrii Konstantinov, Valerii Todorovskii
DoP: Ivan Gudkov, Fedor Liass
Composer: Konstantin Meladze
Production Design: Vladimir Gudilin
Cast: Evgenii Tsyganov, Aleksandr Iatsenko, Anna Chipovskaia, Viktoriia Isakova, Mikhail Efremov, Svetlana Kolpakova, Iana Sekste, Nina Dvorzhetskaia, Pavel Derevianko, Evgenii Volotskii, Vasilii Mishchenko, Andrei Smirnov, Larisa Malevannaia, Vladimir Gostiukhin, Ol’ga Shtyrkova, Evgenii Brik, Fedor Lavrov, Nadezhda Markina, Duta (Demetr) Skhirtladze, Konstantin Chepurin, Anna Kotova, Svetlana Nikiforova, Anastasiia Prokof'eva, Paulina Andreeva, Marina Petrenko, Anastasiia Popova, Fedot L'vov, Viktor Dobronravov, Ulugbek Iuldashev, Viktor Khorinak, Nino Kantariia, Vlad Astashkin, Sof'ia Kashtanova, Sergei Bondarchuk jr,  Nikita Efremov, Egor Koreshkov, Andrei Zavodiuk, Natal;ia Ushakova, Ol’ga Khlebanovich, Valerii Todorovskii
Producer: Valerii Todorovskii
Production: Marmot Film

Valerii Todorovskii: The Thaw (Ottepel', 2013)

reviewed by Lilya Nemchenko© 2014

Updated: 17 Apr 14